Who’s Doing Public Philosophy?

I once read this horrible statistic that maybe four people read any given refereed journal article. Can that be? What a waste of all the energy and thought that goes into this kind of intense writing. And what a shame, we often lament, that writing for “the public” doesn’t count in promotion and tenure decisions. Gone are the days (namely the 1950s), when public intellectuals could write and be respected for writing to an educated and still broad public. Some of us are out to change this, in one way or another. Several years ago John Lachs and others helped raise money for an American Philosophical Association Committee on Public Philosophy. I’ve been part of this pioneering group. We’ve held some special sessions at the eastern and central APA. This is just a start.

So what is public philosophy? I’d say it is philosophy that is in some way or another engaged with public concerns, and not necessarily political ones, and with the public itself. This blog of mine is a species of public philosophy. The title “gone public” doesn’t refer to any initial public offering of stock options to the public. No cents are being made here, though I hope some sense is. We need a separate web site for public philosophy, but in the meantime send your thoughts here by way of a comment describing what kind of public philosophy you see happening in your corner of the world.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. “No cents are being made here, though I hope some sense is.”

    That ‘writing for the public’ is devalued within narrow academic disciplines serves to isolate these disciplines from both each other and the non-academic world, further perpetuating the perception of academics–especially humanities–as existing within ‘ivory towers.’
    Is ‘popular’ philosophy seen as illegitimate?
    Maybe the philosopher’s delusion that everything she has to say is devastatingly important, and that one cannot adequately understand an issue without considering the advanced nitty-gritty causes her to cringe at the idea of the unwashed masses contemplating her precious philosophical problems.
    Maybe this aversion to popular philosophy is mere juvenile vanity. If Carl Sagan could stomach the ‘dumbing down’ of science in his quest to popularize it, why can’t others?

    In my social interaction with non-philosophers, I try to swallow my pride and explain the basic gist of a philosopher’s view without feeling anxious about the fact that the ‘basic gist’ entails only a small fraction of a rich and problematic philosophical system. But when I see the glimmer of enlightenment in the face of my friends when they realize the personal relevance and usefulness of, for example, Sartre’s analysis of subjectivity and social interaction, I feel happy to have given that layperson a glimpse into how philosophy can illuminate and therefore improve our lives. When I was a kid struggling with social issues–this vague feeling of various and disjunctive forms of being–I would have KILLED for someone to elucidate Sartre for me!

    For me, since I’m only a student, public philosophy proceeds from the most intimate, personal level of community–close (non-philosopher) friends and family. I only hope that in my future professional life, I don’t forget how important and fulfilling it is to share the gift of philosophy with others. The fact that such ‘popular’ philosophy necessarily precludes the rigor that we usually associate with philosophy proper should not obscure the genuine worth of even a superficial appreciation of any body of knowledge; though it was a relatively elementary level of scientific literacy that I received by way of Carl Sagan, its worth, and perhaps more importantly, my newfound APPRECIATION of science, is not to be undervalued

  2. Noelle: I’m so excited to see this blog up and going and the wonderful work you’re doing with democractic engagement! I hope you will come and check out the project I’m doing here with Engage: Conversations in Philosophy at Oregon State University. I’d invite your thoughts and comments.


  3. Stumbled upon your blog a week ago and decided to come back. Not for the articles you write, but for how you write them, really amazing stuff you’re doing here, i like how you put information into the articles which makes it much more easier to read and much more interesting of course. Keep up the good work!

  4. It seems to me that philosophy has an excellent exemplar of public philosophy in the figure of Socrates. That philosophy has long been understood to eschew the concrete problems that face the public is a sign of how the discipline has increasingly become divorced from the activity from which is was born.

    Part of the impetus not only to undertake a study of the nature of Socratic politics but also to attempt in the process to perform philosophy in public, is guided by the sense that the philosophical activity needs to speak to and with the public.

    I appreciate your blog because it recognizes the importance of philosophy as a public activity. I can only hope that my blogs and the Digital Dialogue podcast are beginning to contribute in small ways to the activities of a philosophy gone public.

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